A Silent Corrupting Force? Criminal Sentencing and the Threat of Recall
40 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2020
Date Written: June 4, 2020
39 U.S. states authorize recall elections, but the incentives they create are not well understood. We examine how changes in the perceived threat of recall alter the behavior of one set of officials: judges. In 2016, outrage over the sentence imposed on a Stanford athlete following his sexual assault conviction sparked an ultimately successful drive to recall the presiding judge. Using data on over 22,000 sentences from six California counties and matched arrest records for a subset of more than 12,000, we examine whether critical events in the recall campaign were accompanied by corresponding changes in other judges' sentences. We find a large, discontinuous increase in punitiveness associated with the campaign's announcement, but not the recall itself -- suggesting the announcement shifted judges' beliefs about their political environment. The increase may have indirectly produced a disproportionate burden for minority defendants. Our findings are the first to document incentive effects of recall, and suggest that targeted political campaigns may have far-reaching, unintended consequences.
Keywords: Recall, Judicial Elections, Sentencing, Discrimination, Regression Discontinuity
JEL Classification: D72, J15, K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation